Coke Gives Torch Relay Green Theme Amid Air-Quality Concerns

Beverage Giant Choses 'Environmental Champions' to Bear Olympic Flame on Road to Beijing

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Coca-Cola is using the Olympic torch relay -- the handoff that sends the Olympic flame hurtling toward Beijing, one of the most polluted cities in the world -- to highlight its commitment to the environment.

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'Environmental champions': Coke's torch bearers plant an olive tree at the site of the first Olympics.

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The International Olympic Committee allows presenting sponsors of the relay (Coke, Samsung and Lenovo) to choose many of the torchbearers for the event, and Coke opted to offer spots to so-called environmental champions from various countries.

The move puts a spotlight on the good works of the honorees and the soft-drink giant's green efforts, but it also presents a somewhat stark contrast with the calamitous environmental situation in China, where air-quality concerns are threatening to cancel events and might result in some athlete boycotts. A Coke spokesman, however, said he didn't see that as a problem for the brand. "What we have is an opportunity to highlight a lot of the good work being done around the world," he said. "We see it as an opportunity to bring sustainability to the forefront." He added that because the torch relay is a traveling platform, it will allow Coke to focus on honoring work being done in each country en route to China, culminating with steps being taken to improve rural water quality there.

That's probably a good thing, because the games in Beijing -- which the World Health Organization says has air pollution 12 times greater than a "safe" level -- are going to draw loads of negative ink on environmental issues.

In fact, they already have. One of the world's top marathoners, Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie, said last week he might pull out of the games because the air quality might aggravate his asthma. A month earlier, the British Olympic Association has said it may urge its athletes to compete in pollution-filtering face masks, which it believes may give its athletes an advantage over rivals breathing the unfiltered tainted air.

China, for its part, has said it intends to take dramatic measures to curb air pollution during the games.

The environment is, of course, only one of several looming hurdles for marketers looking to benefit from association with the Beijing games. Genocide in Darfur, abuses in Tibet and lung-choking smog aren't exactly simpatico with the happy-go-lucky "Coke Side of Life," but the brand still sees the Olympics as a positive showcase. "We're trying to send a message of inspiration," the spokesman said.
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